Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Characterization through action

Copyright 2003, by Linda Hope Lee

The previous two tip sheets discuss how to characterize through a
person's physical description and through his/her thoughts. In this
article we will consider characterization through action.
A character's actions may be defined in two ways: 1) the ways he
moves his body; i.e., the way he walks, his gestures and mannerisms,
and his facial expressions. 2) the larger way in which he responds to
internal conflict or external events.
Let's consider bodily actions first:

Walking. Walking is a good indication of character because it is
largely an unconscious movement. The conscious mind is usually
occupied with other thoughts, leaving the body free to express itself.
Think about your character and the traits you have given him. What is
his dominant trait? Can you show this trait through his walking?
Suppose your character, Sarah, is a timid person. How would you show
her entering a room? You might say, "Sarah tiptoed over the
threshold," or "Sarah edged inside the door."
Another character, Sally, is bold. Sally might "bring her heels down
hard on the tile floor," or, she might "stride past the maitre d' and
head toward Bob's table."
It is the strong verb in each example that gives us a picture of how
the person walks and that also gives an indication of character.

When possible, avoid using the word "walking" with an adverb, as in
"Tom walked slowly toward her." The adverb is a crutch that doesn't
get rid of the dull word "walking." Choose a strong, specific word
instead. She ambled. He trotted. He raced.

Gestures. Like walking, gestures are largely unconscious movements
and therefore good indications of character. Gestures include
movements such as shaking a finger to punctuate speech, pushing one's
glasses up on the nose, running a finger around the inside of the
What character traits might these gestures indicate? A person who
shakes his finger might be the dogmatic type who wants to make sure
the listener sees his point of view. The person fingering his collar
might be acting out nervousness or insecurity.

To help you incorporate gestures into your characterizations, imagine
you are the person in the story. Act out his role in a scene and see
what gestures come to mind.
Observe the gestures of people you know or of strangers with whom you
come in contact. How do these mannerisms fit what you know or surmise
of their traits? An effective way to observe gestures is to watch
television with the sound off.

Facial expressions. Eyes are probably the most commonly used feature
to indicate character. Suppose you wanted to show that Jim was cold
and calculating. You might say something like: "Jim's eyes were
narrowed slits as he took a swift inventory of Marilyn's expensively
furnished apartment." To show Lorna's honesty, you might write,
"Lorna looked at me with clear, unwavering eyes as she told me her
astounding story."

Please don't have your characters do impossible things with their
eyes: "Her eyes flew to his face," for example. Instead, write, "Her
glance flew to his face."
Another humorous eye movement is "She lowered her eyes to the floor."
Change to something like, "Shelowered her eyelids," or, "She looked
at the floor."

The mouth is another commonly used facial feature for indicating
character. "Laura's smile flashed on and off like an electric light."
"Jason has the toothy grin of a seasoned politician."
Now, let's move on to the larger actions a character takes in reponse
to something happening in his external or internal world. His
responses will depend upon his motivations, his basic needs, and his
traits. While a knowledge of your plot is necessary to choose the
character's actions, some sample situations may help you get into the
habit of using this process.

1. Jack loves Judy. Judy leaves Jack for another man, thus depriving
him of a basic need, love. Jack is highly motivated to seek a new
love, but his shy nature makes him uncomfortable with face-to-face
contact with women he doesn't know.

Therefore, Jack chooses to place an ad in the Personals Column.
Placing the ad is the large action Jack takes to solve his problem.
He takes this particular action because of his basic character trait.

2. Mary Ellen's son, Ralph, has received a scholarship to a college.
However, the collage is not one of Mary Ellen's choosing. A
domineering person who must control others, Mary Ellen goes to her
child's school in order to convince the administration to withdraw
the award.

3. John and Sue are doing research for an ad campaign. At a meeting
with the boss, he points out several flaws in their study. John
agrees that some modifications are needed. Mary, however, can never
admit she might be wrong and refuses to make changes.

In each of the above cases, you would reinforce this trait in other
aspects of the story. You might, for example, show Jack being shy in
another situation, perhaps at a party or on the job. Mary Ellen's
need to control might be reinforced by having her attempt to coerce
her women's group to her way of thinking. Sue's need to be always
right might cause trouble at home between her and her husband.


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